Japan’s Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy (SHSP) is striving to meet an August deadline for delivering a plan for reorganizing the nation’s space activities to conform with the Basic Space Law, a 2008 statute that lifted a ban on using space for military purposes and called for establishing Cabinet-level management of Japanese space programs in order to better serve national needs.

The SHSP’s new secretary general, Hiroshi Yamakawa, readily admits the reorganization plan is long overdue. The Basic Space Law set a mid-2009 deadline for outlining an overhaul, but progress has been stymied by changes at the top of Japan’s political establishment — two prime ministers and multiple Cabinet reshuffles since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in August 2009 — and a belt-tightening budget environment.

Yamakawa, a 45-year-old engineer who worked on the Hayabusa asteroid sample-return mission and other space projects, does not sugarcoat how tough it is to reach consensus on what Japan’s new space organization should be. While he says he is more confident today of meeting the August deadline than he was upon taking office late last year, he still gives only even odds of getting the job done in time to influence Japan’s 2012 budget.

Yamakawa spoke recently with Space News correspondent Paul Kallender-Umezu.

What progress has Japan made implementing the 2008 Basic Space Law?

The Basic Space Law said we had to optimize or reorganize the government space organizations within one year of enactment, but nothing happened. The primary reason was the change of the government; the new administration had to have some time to settle down and rethink what it wanted to do about space. But now is the time. And that’s why I am here now — to complete these tasks.

When will this be done?

By this summer I have to reoptimize the space strategy and submit an optimal plan for Japan’s new space organization and policy.

Of course it will take time after that to actually implement the reorganization.

Do you intend to submit this plan by the time Japan’s budget request is announced at the end of August?

Yes, that’s correct. If we really want to submit a law to reorganize or optimize the organization, we have to submit the budget related to the organization by the end of this August.

What are the odds you’ll meet the August deadline?

Good question. Last year, when I became the secretary general, I’d have put the odds at 20 to 80 against. But right now we are at about 50-50. But there’s one condition. The government of the Democratic Party of Japan has to be stable. If we have a stable administration through the year, then the chances will continue improving.

Everyone knows we will soon be two years past the old deadline, and everybody thinks that we have a great opportunity in the light of what I would call the Hayabusa effect. Hayabusa  showed that space is one of the areas where Japan still has some leading positions in the world. The other point is people are realizing space development also is very important to national security. So these combinations of needs and pressures may overcome the political inertia, and I think that’s why the chances are improving.

What concrete steps is the SHSP taking to advance the agenda?

Before I became secretary general, there were two working groups: one dedicated to reorganization  and the other to the Space Activities Act. Both have submitted their reports.

Those reports are being reviewed by a special commission we established this year led by Yoshiyuki Kasai, the former chairman of the Central Japan Railway Co. They will be discussing this every month and conclude this summer.

What’s the biggest challenge the SHSP faces?

The SHSP was created to coordinate activities among the 10 ministries involved in drafting budgets for space activities. Our challenge is that we have no authority to coordinate the budget, just policies.

Another issue is the conservative nature of the ministries. If we come to them and say, “This can be done this way instead,” or, “This is more efficient or effective,” they still have the right to coordinate their own budget. So of course the budget cannot be optimized for space policy.

A DPJ-commissioned report last April recommended breaking up the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and establishing a new Cabinet-level space agency. What is your position?

I have my own solution in terms of the reorganization, but as secretary general I cannot say what it is. Officially, I have to say the discussions continue at the special commission. I should add that there is not going to be a solution that will make everyone happy. We cannot think about the merit of one ministry. We have to think about the return for the country as a whole. There were four options in last year’s report. The most conservative option was to strengthen the SHSP, and the most radical option was to merge everything into a single agency within the Cabinet Office. My personal opinion is that it would not be wise to undo the 2003 merger that created JAXA. But I think the whole governmental organization has to be optimized under a new agency. That’s all I can say for now. I know I said 50-50, but by this summer some kind of reorganization can be done. Something will be done in that direction.

What other issues is the SHSP wrestling with?

The Basic Space Plan assumed an annual budget of 500 billion yen ($6 billion) for 2009-2013. This year’s budget is 300 billion yen and change, so there is a real gap between the projected figure and the real figure, and there is not enough money to do what was called for in the Basic Space Plan. We are in the middle of the first five-year plan now, so we have to revisit the Basic Space Plan as we prepare the budget proposal for next year. That is another very important task we have to complete by August.

Japan’s budget outlook already has had an impact on some mandated projects, including the Epsilon small satellite launcher. Do you foresee other cuts and delays?

Well, talking about Epsilon itself, the SHSP thinks Epsilon is very important, not only because it’s new, but because it’s solid-fuel rocket technology, which Japan has been developing for 40 years, and it’s very important Japan retain that technology. So the first satellite that will be launched is a science satellite, but after that any kind of mission can be launched by Epsilon, including smaller satellites. That’s why we have included Epsilon as one of the most important programs.

How strong is the DPJ’s support for the SHSP?

I was one of the five members of the SHSP last year grappling with space policy and I met Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, who was then state minister for space, and talked with him seven times. I thought we were following the same direction. Since this time last year, the number of DPJ politicians showing strong support for space is increasing. Their support is very strong.

Will that support translate into a bigger space budget?

If the reorganization succeeds, then doubling the budget, or at least reaching 500 billion yen, may be feasible. Reorganization and the budget increase are tied together. Without the reorganization, the other is impossible and nothing will be changed. Reorganization is not the final target. The final target is to maximize Japanese space activities, and to do that we need more budget. If we stay on the same trail as before, then nothing can be done.

How soon could Japan’s space spending grow to 500 billion yen?

At the moment, the government can afford only about 300 billion yen. The remaining part can be partially bridged by growing Japan’s private-sector space market. The private sector is facing a critical juncture. They have to launch a minimum of, say, four or more satellites and rockets a year to maintain their base. To do that, they have to  rely on the government, but they also have to look to create new markets. The government is now strongly supporting these activities to expand the market. The final target of the Japanese government’s annual space budget, together with the nongovernment market size, has to be about 500 billion yen, and that will take some time. Until we can get to that, we need a mixed strategy that includes government supporting industry.

What kind of support?

It’s the same principle as Japan’s support of nuclear power plants or the Shinkansen bullet train system. Private-sector companies these days strongly need support from their governments. This is the global situation, not only in Japan, but in Europe and the U.S. So we are looking at different possibilities.

A graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he won the Horgan Prize for Excellence in Science Writing, Paul Kallender-Umezu is co-author of “In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy” (Stanford University...